Acupuncture is an important aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The exact origin of TCM and acupuncture is not known, but it originated more than two or three thousand years ago. The theoretical basis of TCM is that there is a life-force, call Qi, that resides and circulates within one’s body, and illnesses are due to the deficiency or excess, stagnation, and imbalance of Qi. Acupuncture is the aspect of TCM that uses needles applying at appropriate acupuncture pressure points to generate, circulate, and rebalance Qi. Other aspects of TCM include doing diagnostics by sensing the subtleties of the pulse, examining external features such as the color and texture of the tongue, prescribing herbal medicines, suggesting exercises such as Taiji, and applying special massaging techniques such as Tui Na or Qigong healing. Although the relationship between the theoretical basis of acupuncture and modern scientific understanding of physiology and medicine is unclear, most people do acknowledge that there are a lot of medical benefits associated with acupuncture, although there are skeptics. This article provides a brief introduction to the theoretical framework of acupuncture even though this theoretical framework could be modified as we gain a better understanding of the science behind acupuncture.
In TCM, the life-force Qi circulates within the body through channels called meridians (or vessels). There are 12 symmetric meridians, each associated with a major organ (lung, large intestine, stomach, spleen, heart, small intestine, bladder, kidney, pericardium, triple warmer, gall bladder, and liver), and these symmetric meridians come in pairs, one on the left and one on the right of the body. The meridian is named after that major organ, e.g., the lung meridian, the kidney meridian, the liver meridian, etc. Besides these 12 symmetric meridians, there are two other non-symmetric meridians, the Conception Vessel and the Governing Vessel (these two are usually denoted by the word Vessel, instead of Meridian). They are in the center of the body, with the Conception Vessel in the front of the body and the Governing Vessel in the back of the body. One of the functions of the Governing Vessel is the raising of emotional energy, and could be used to treat depression. One of the functions of the Conception Vessel is related to birth and the treatment of sexual disorders.
On each of these meridians are special locations, called acupuncture points, that govern the flow of Qi through that meridian. Often, but not always, the acupuncture points are locations in the body that are tender areas when the body is in ill health, sometimes they will be painful when pressed, and sometimes they are painful even if not pressed. There are many acupuncture points, several hundreds of them. So classifying them according to the meridian in which they reside helps to remember their location and their function. The acupuncture points serve a dual purpose of identifying the health problem and also identifying a location for treating the problem.
The acupuncture points are usually, but not always, located just beneath the skin. Therefore, the acupuncture needles do not need to penetrate deeply under the skin. Usually the needles only need to be inserted 1/4 to 1 inch in depth.
Besides the above named organs, we also have the brain and the sense organs, the endocrine glands, the reproductive organs, and others. Since one or more of the 14 above mentioned meridians/vessels pass through these parts of the body, they all can be treated via the acupuncture points on these 14 meridians/vessels. It is also important to note that the areas near a meridian can also be affected by treating that meridian. Furthermore there are certain relationships that expand the applicability of acupuncture points on a particular meridian.
One is the embryological relationship. So when acupuncture points on the kidney meridian are stimulated, they affect not only the kidney, but also embryological related organs such as the ovary, testicle, uterus, fallopian tube, and to some extent the adrenal. This is because all these organs were formed in the same region of the embryo – the region of the kidney. Apparently, this intimate relationship in the embryo is maintained in the adult as far as acupuncture points are concerned.
Another is the anatomical and functional relationships. Since the nose and throat are part of the respiratory system, and the lung is the main organ for the respiratory system, diseases of the nose and throat can also be treated by acupuncture points of the lung meridian.
Another is the physiological relationship. Since some of the antibodies for certain allergic conditions such as asthma and hay fever are manufactured in the liver, they can be treated via the liver acupuncture points. Similarly, a tendency to bruise easily, presumably because a weak liver will not produce enough prothrombin or other clotting agents, can also be treated via the liver acupuncture points.
What this means is that the acupuncture points on the 14 meridians/vessels mentioned above can provide a fairly comprehensive treatment of the whole body.
Since a meridian transverses through a large portion of the body, a problem in a certain part of the body could be treated via acupuncture points far from that part of the body. This provides an understanding of one of the most puzzling observations in acupuncture and TCM that one can treat a problem in the head via acupuncture points on the bottom of the foot.
As mentioned earlier, the theoretical essence of acupuncture and TCM is Qi, the life-force that is supposed to flow through the meridians. What are the physical manifestations of Qi and the meridians? There are physical measurements that seem to indicate the existence of Qi. For example., near the hands of a Qigong master when he is emitting external Qi, an increase in the electromagnetic field is detected. Several studies have also found that there is an increase in the electroencephalograph (EEG)’s alpha-wave amplitude and a decrease in its frequency on Qigong masters when they are in a Qigong state, indicating moving toward tranquility during Qigong practice. These, as well as the results of other studies, can be found in Reference . However, many more experiments of various varieties and involving larger sample sizes are needed before one can ascertain the scientific existence of Qi.
Do the meridians correspond to the blood vessels where blood and oxygen flow? Or do the meridians correspond to the nerves where electrical and chemical signals are transmitted? Unfortunately, these are some of the most important questions that still need to be answered. Currently, we just don’t know whether the classical theoretical explanation of acupuncture and TCM in terms of Qi and meridians can be understood within our current scientific knowledge of the physiology and biology of the human body. Perhaps what will remain in the future is just that we know that empirically acupuncture and TCM can cure a lot of medical ills, but the traditional explanation of why they work can no longer make sense, or there will be major improvements or extensions of our understanding of the physiology and biology of the human body that will allow us to tie together synergistically the traditional theoretical explanation of acupuncture/TCM and modern science and medicine.
 Chinese Medical Qigong, Editor in Chief: Tianjun Liu, O.M.D., and Associate Editor in Chief: Kevin W. Chen, Ph.D., published by Singing Dragon, United Kingdom, 2010, 653 pages. This book is the first English translation of the only official textbook of medical Qigong, now in its third edition, used in colleges and universities of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in China. This book is the result of more than 30 faculty members in a dozen colleges and universities of TCM in China.